Disclaimer: The following article contains language that could be triggering for those who have experience with eating disorders.
In 1990, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented a network he called the World Wide Web. Since then, the Internet has gone on to revolutionize how we do everything from order food to read the news. Emerging industries have transformed into pillars of the economy while some old companies have been made obsolete by online competition. It has reshaped how we experience the world around us in so many ways. Today, we want to think about a statement that is both profound and unarguable: For better or for worse, the Internet has completely changed how we communicate with one another.
This rings true for both large and small scales of interaction. Instagram allows you to see what your favorite celebrities are doing day-to-day as Facebook keeps you updated with the rest of your family. Essentially, social media lets us stay connected with anyone. Ideas flow freely between cities, countries, and even continents - indeed, some modern political uprisings like the Arab Spring have been dependent on apps like Twitter. The Internet is quite literally changing history.
Of course though, innovations this radical cannot be completely good or completely bad. The Internet has rewritten how we handle mental health, and it has left a mixed bag of results in its wake.
Even for those who are not struggling with mental illness, the Internet offers ways for many of us to deal with stress. Affect's own team members have shared Internet-based coping mechanisms like watching Netflix and playing video games in a previous post. Used in moderation among other methods, these are extremely helpful for life's rough patches. What about when you're facing more than a bad day, though? What about when you're facing a mental illness?
Rest assured, there are many places to find support on the Internet. In another post, we discussed the mental health-focused communities within Tumblr and Reddit. Blogging sites suit these discussions well because their anonymity allows users to be extremely candid with strangers. Reddit is also set up in a first-come, first-served style, so everyone who posts on a forum has the same chance of being seen regardless of how popular their account is. This is a departure from formats like Instagram's, which uses algorithms to show you posts that your friends have liked frequently first. In this manner, blogs can serve to level the playing field for users who are not consistently active.
Social media platforms that are not anonymous are better suited to organizing in-person meetups. Facebook lets people coordinate events like community forums, fundraisers, and awareness events. Large advocacy groups like Mental Health America often have lively feeds as well, sharing posts with hundreds of thousands of followers at a time. However, these websites might be most important because they expand the audience talking about mental health.
The Humans of New York blog, run by Brandon Stanton, is famous for its willingness to approach controversial topics. Along with stories that tackle homophobia and racism, Stanton's interviews with New Yorkers have touched on struggles with drug addiction and panic attacks. He brings these conversations to the news feeds of some 18 million followers. Celebrities can do the same by sharing their mental health struggles with their fans. Lady Gaga, who has three times more followers than HONY, made headlines when she wrote an open letter about her diagnosis of PTSD. In this way, the Internet is a beautiful thing in that it reminds us that we are not alone.
Unfortunately, the same aspects of the Internet that help good ideas spread quickly also apply to harmful information. While Twitter was facilitating the Arab Spring, terrorist groups were sharing their propaganda with the world. These videos have ignited debate about how information should be censored in nations like the U.S. that value free press. And sometimes accurate vetting is just impossible. According to the Guardian, creators on YouTube upload 300 hours of video every minute or nearly 50 years of footage every day. Humans cannot possibly watch that much content, so YouTube uses artificial intelligence programs to determine the fate of its videos. As with many machine learning programs, its imperfections allow some questionable content to slip through the cracks.
The same can be said of the Internet as a whole. While the government takes down certain unlawful sites for crimes like child pornography, nobody vets newly created websites for harmful content. It would be impossible anyways; a Google search for "eating disorders" returns 55 million results. The problem is, not all of these websites are helpful to those recovering from eating disorders. In fact, a growing faction of them do the exact opposite.
These blogs are often called pro-ana (anorexia) or pro-mia (bulimia), and they revolve around a shared dogma: "My eating disorder is not an illness, but a lifestyle." They often start with a list of "rules" that their readers should follow to resist the "temptation" of food and continually lose weight. Some also have "thinspiration" sections flooded with images of startlingly underweight women. By encouraging visitors to lose weight no matter what, these blogs are obviously promoting dangerous behavior. So, why? Why do vulnerable people feel compelled to go back to these websites again and again?
In its eye-opening review of pro-ana pages, the Telegraph proposed that its readers value these websites for their sense of community. When one is convinced that her eating disorder is not a disease (again, the central belief of these blogs) she will feel misunderstood by her loved ones, her doctors, and all the other people pushing for her recovery. With that in mind, it's not surprising that sufferers often turn to this group that not only accepts, but encourages their mindset.
In 1990, when photo editing services cost hundreds of dollars per hour, brothers Thomas and John Knoll released Photoshop 1.0. Since then, photoshop has become part of our everyday vocabulary as a catch-all term for the retouching we see in advertisements everywhere. Nowadays, there are even free or low-cost apps that allow consumers to do similar work to photos on their phone.
This might not have posed a problem if people could look at images and immediately determine if they are photoshopped or not. In the image to the right, fitness blogger and psychologist Stacey Lee compares a retouched image to its original. As you can see, some changes are subtle and not immediately noticeable to the untrained eye. It just doesn't seem healthy for young people to be surrounded by edited pictures without knowing that they are not real. But the reality is that many teenagers scroll through a virtual world where anything ugly has been edited out.
While these pictures are most damaging to those with body image issues, some people fighting depression point to a different Internet phenomenon. Let's call it "lifestyle photoshop". Simply put, it's what happens when people have the freedom to share what they want online. Naturally, people lean towards their personal highlights. We would much rather post about a new job offer and receive praise from our friends than post about the dozens of applications that went nowhere. This might seem beneficial in the short term - after all, isn't it healthy to be reading about things that make people happy? Well, if you're struggling with a mental illness that is characterized by feelings of worthlessness, an environment with no signs of failure may exacerbate your issue.
potential for good, potential for harm
The Internet is a powerful tool. Whether it helps or hurts people struggling with mental illness, it is bound to have a huge impact. We at Affect are happy to see that many innovators are using technology to create solutions and decrease stigma. In fact, by reading this blog, you are a part of that movement! Hopefully, these websites that further the conversation on mental health will continue to spread. (In a telling comparison, a Google search for "mental health" returned 280 million results and one for "physical health" had over 1 billion.)
For the time being, every one of us can use the Internet for good. We can reach out to old friends, share our thoughts on fixing the mental health situation, and keep the conversation alive. Certainly, new players will join in the game as time goes on - perhaps a new Facebook will rise up and reshape our interactions again. But now, we can only try our best to continue reaching out to our friends, family, and strangers in need. There will be more to come in the future.
Banner image courtesy of Flickr